“In the beginning, there was Louis B. Mayer. And he looked over the kingdom of Hollywood and its glory and said, “This is good.” And then he saw stirrings of unionism among studios craftsman and he said, “This stinks.” – Inside Oscar
Thus, the Academy Awards were born. We’re going backwards in time to the beginning of it all, back when Louis B. Mayer needed a dominant force to control the growing power of the unions. An organization was concocted to, among other things, mediate labor disputes, clean up tawdry content to satisfy the Hays Office and promote technical achievements in the film industry. Mayer wanted an elite club made up of the most popular and influential of the five branches, actors, directors, writers, technicians and producers. Mayer was going to be in charge of choosing the members. And, according to Inside Oscar, even though they planned on having an annual banquet of sorts for the membership, awards were not part of it.
On January 11, 1927, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences became a thing. The first awards were “for distinctive achievement.” By the following year, 1928, the awards committee had a voting system. Each Academy member would cast one nominating vote in the branch. One person chosen from each branch (five people) would then choose the winners. The privilege to vote in the awards was emphasized by then President Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. who said:
All members of the Academy are urged as a special duty and privilege to fill in their nominations of the Academy Awards of Merit with full recognition of the importance and responsibility of the act. Academy Awards of Merit should be considered the highest distinction attainable in the motion picture profession and only by the impartial justice and wisdom displayed by the membership in making their nominations will this desired result be possible.
What we call Best Picture now was to be called Best Production and it would go to the “most outstanding motion picture considering all elements that contribute to a picture’s greatness.” They also had a separate award called “Artistic Quality of Production” that would honor the production company with the “most artistic, unique and/or original motion picture without reference to cost or magnitude.” In other words, they divided the big money makers from the smaller artistic pursuits, a trend they might be forced to back to since Hollywood is now moving in a very different direction.
Funnily enough, in the early days of naming the awards, Louis B. Mayer removed “International” from the name of the Academy to help build up the reputation of the Academy itself. They might want to rethink that name now as well.
In any case, Fairbanks said that these awards might help improve Hollywood’s image overall, “the screen and all its people were under a great and alarming cloud of public censure and contempt. Some constructive action seemed imperative to halt the attacks and establish the industry in the public mind as a respectable legitimate institution, and its people as reputable individuals.”
The statuette — from Inside Oscar:
As the Academy members filled out their nomination ballots, the founders of the Academy deliberated over what kind of trophy, plaque or scroll the ultimate winners would receive Mayer left the design of the award in the capable hands of Cedric Gibbons. While Gibbons was at an Academy meeting listening to Board members talk about the five branches and the need for a strong image for the film industry, he sketched away and then revealed his design: a naked man plunging a sword into a reel of film. The five holes on the reel, Gibbons explained, represented the Academy branches.
For the production of the statuette, the Academy gave $500 to an unemployed art school graduate named George Stanley, who sculpted Gibbons’ design in clay. Alex Smith then cast the 12 1/2 inch, 6 3/4 pound statuette in tin and copper and gold-plated the whole thing. The Award was ready; now it was time for the first winners.
We’ll be discussing Year One on our next podcast. Stay tuned.